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Council on Academic Freedom Proposes Statement of Principles for University Adoption

The Council on Academic Freedom at Harvard said the University ought to resist outside influence on its scholarship.
The Council on Academic Freedom at Harvard said the University ought to resist outside influence on its scholarship. By Charles K. Michael
By Tilly R. Robinson and Neil H. Shah, Crimson Staff Writers

The Council on Academic Freedom at Harvard said the University ought to resist outside influence on its scholarship and recommit to a defense of controversial speech in a proposed statement of principles released Thursday.

In a meeting Wednesday night, CAFH members unanimously endorsed the statement, titled “The Freedoms of a University,” which they said Harvard should adopt. Their statement, which was shared with The Crimson Thursday, lacked any concrete policy demands, including a demand for an increasingly favored approach of institutional neutrality.

“The administration must set the tone with a full-throated endorsement of academic freedom, and by adopting and enforcing rules that safeguard the freedoms we should all enjoy,” they wrote. “It is the embracing of these freedoms that allows a university to push back the frontiers of knowledge and equip its members to serve with wisdom.”

The set of principles comes as Harvard finds itself at the epicenter of national debate over speech on college campuses. Harvard’s drama was given shape by the spectacular fall of Claudine Gay’s presidency, which began as she struggled to define the bounds of protected speech on a campus polarized by the war in Gaza.

The move also marks the first large-scale public statement from CAFH, whose individual leaders — including Psychology professor Steven A. Pinker, former Harvard Medical School Dean Jeffrey S. Flier, and Harvard Law School professor Jeannie Suk Gersen — have emerged as prominent commentators on the University’s path out of its gravest crisis in more than half a century.

Independently, the group’s leaders have lobbied publicly, through op-eds and interviews, and in a widely-reported private dinner in December with two Harvard Corporation fellows — who serve on the University’s highest governing body — for the school to adopt a policy of institutional neutrality, a tougher approach to campus antisemitism, or a more rigorous defense of free speech.

But Thursday’s statement suggests the group, which was founded last April and boasts more than 170 Harvard faculty members, is seeking to leverage its power as an organization to influence the direction of the University under interim President Alan M. Garber ’76.

In a Wednesday interview, Garber told The Crimson that he “strongly favors free speech” — but added that there “needs to be a discussion about what are the limits.” He later wrote that he did not support the implementation of speech codes.

In their statement, the CAFH members described “two essential freedoms” they believe universities must protect: the freedom from a “fear of reprisal” over one’s beliefs and the freedom “to speak and be heard, regardless of background or social position.”

“We also have a moral duty to listen, and to approach disagreement in a spirit of genuine curiosity, motivated by the desire to learn from each other, and open to the possibility that any of us, at any time, might be wrong,” the statement added.

The statement also called for “full transparency” regarding donations to the university, a greater tolerance for speech that “risks offense,” and — in an apparent reference to the ongoing congressional investigations into Harvard — resistance to “attempts to use state power to curtail academic freedom.”

The statement was drafted by a working group of CAFH members, which was chaired by Philosophy professor Edward J. “Ned” Hall and included School of Public Health Epidemiology professor Miguel A. Hernan, History professor emerita Jane Kamensky, Harvard Medical School Neurobiology professor Richard Born, Psychology professor Richard J. McNally, Harvard Law School professor Randall L. Kennedy, and former evolutionary biology lecturer Carole Hooven.

A Harvard spokesperson did not comment on the statement, which — according to Flynn J. Cratty, the CAFH executive director — had yet to be sent to the University as of Thursday evening.

Cratty said he saw several paths forward to the statement being adopted by the University.

“Conceivably, it could be adopted in the same way that the bullying policy was — by the Corporation,” Cratty said in an interview. “Or, it could be that individual schools or even individual departments could decide that they want to adopt this.”

Cratty said he hoped the statement — regardless of whether it becomes adopted — will spark a “full and robust conversation at Harvard about what Harvard’s position on these sorts of freedoms should be.”

“We’re pretty proud of the statement that we’ve produced,” Cratty added. “But if not that, we’d love to see Harvard adopt another one that’s better.”

—Staff writer Tilly R. Robinson can be reached at tilly.robinson@thecrimson.com. Follow her on X @tillyrobin.

—Staff writer Neil H. Shah can be reached at neil.shah@thecrimson.com. Follow him on X @neilhshah15.

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CAFH Statement of Principles